Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2006
Oil has meant mastery throughout the 20th Century. It is the world’s biggest and most pervasive business, and ‘the’ strategic commodity on the world stage. In a four part series Tom Mangold looks at the geopolitics of oil. When will the tap run dry: Tom Mangold explores the biggest debate facing the oil industry today – will we run out of oil, and if so, when?
Part 1: When will the tap run dry?
The first part looks at the biggest debate facing the industry today: Peak Oil. This is when the rate of production begins to decline, with devastating consequences if demand continues to rise, as it is at the moment. Has Peak Oil been reached, and how and by what methods can it be delayed? With privileged access to the National Petroleum Council in Washington, addressed by the Secretary of State for Energy, and a new initiative to focus on America’s dependence on oil, Tom speaks to those on both sides of the fence: the petro-pessimists who see the world returning to the dark ages, and the oil-optimists who believe we are entering the golden age of oil, when higher prices and new innovations will see breakthroughs in recovery and discovery of oil. Going behind the scenes at Shell’s research centre in Houston, Tom meets the scientists who are working at the frontline of international research and pursuing new techniques and technologies to push the oil horizon further than ever before. In their 3D virtual reality centre, he goes not just under the sea, but under the sea bed and hears the latest breakthroughs that are making offshore deep-water production one of the industries most promising areas, and evaluates the competing demands of shale oil, tar sands and heavy crude. With experts and analysts including John Skinner (director of Oxford Energy Institute), and Samsam Bakhtiari of the Bakhtiari clan in Iran, which gave the first, historic, concession to the US, Tom Mangold explores with precision the arguments on all sides of the debate, where this uncertainty leaves us, and what the future holds.
Part 2: China Syndrome
Tom Mangold looks at the new demand for oil and the impact of emerging economies such as China and India upon the industry and world politics. Will the West come into conflict with these new consumers, and will power increasingly fall into the hands of less democratic regimes? The entry of China (and India) into the industrialised world is altering the dynamics of the entire oil business, upstream, downstream, economically and politically, almost beyond recognition. This programme will focus on the new demand for oil and the impact upon the industry and the politics of both the Middle East and other parts of the world. The posturings of Hugo Chavez and the political games which Russia is playing, as host to this year’s G8 summit, are put under the spotlight, and the rhetoric of Western Governments’ calling for cuts on dependence of Middle Eastern Oil closely scrutinised. The stability or instability of allegiances built on oil are questioned, and thoughts on a new world order, arising from who has and who does not have and can’t win access to oil, are put forward by academics and practitioners. Tom asks US Senator, Richard Lugar, where he sees America standing in the changing world of geopolitics. With his writing, speaking and Senate hearings, not to mention practical example, Lugar has done more than anyone in the US political arena to address the issues the programme explores, and is the voice of leadership on this issue in House and Senate. Meanwhile the impact of rising prices as demand continues to escalate is captured by Tom’s visit to the New York Monetary Exchangewhere oil is bought and sold at an amazing rate and in astonishing volumes. Speaking to traders on the floor he finds out what those really in-the-know in the old world are predicting about supply and demand and the price of petrol at our pumps.
Part 3: Big Oil, an Energy Pearl Harbour
Is the oil market like a ship riding too high in the water? It would take very little to destabilise the world’s oil supplies, but who would be the winners – and losers? Tom Mangold finds out just what the risks really are. About $48 per barrel is added by the so-called `terror premium’. The truth is, that the world’s oil market is like a ship riding too high in the water. It can be destabilised and sink quickly and easily through minor buffeting. The former `slack’ in OPEC’s oil production, created to maintain stable supplies with the flux of major world events has effectively vanished through increasing daily demand. There is now less spare capacity than at almost any point in the past 30 years. So how much power and influence does this give to minority groups willing to use terrorism to disrupt the world’s oil supply? With experts such as Jim Woolsey, former director of Central Intelligence, Dan Mulvenna former Canadian special branch officer and Security Officer for AMOCO, who has special expertise on the protection of oil facilities and pipelines, and Mike Scheuer former head of the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden unit, we ask how significant are the calls by Jihadist websites to “their brothers in the battlefields to direct some of their greatest efforts towards the oil wells and pipe lines….” The website message continues, “The impact of killing 10 American soldiers is nothing compared to the impact of the rise in oil prices on America and the disruption that it causes in the international economy.” In Houston we gather with hopefuls from the across the oil industry as a new Long Range Acoustic Device is demonstrated. This simple mechanism emits directional messages to unrecognised boats approaching tankers or oil rigs, warning them to move away. If they don’t, more focused action can be taken to prevent boarding or other terrorist activities. With input from Chris Austen, a Former Royal Navy Marine Terrorism Specialist the programme analyses the vulnerabilities of the oil tankers and shipping routes to disruptive forces. This is balanced with a range of comments on the near-miss attack on Al Abqaiq oil refinery. Was it just luck that saved the day, or are there sufficient safeguards to reduce the threat significantly? “You can’t draw a line of steel” around Houston Port, the manager explains to Tom, but there is a special air unit that can be mobilised immediately to counter a terrorist threat. One thing, however, that everyone agrees on is that Al Qaeda never gives up. So, is the Pentagon doomed to providing a permanent international security force for the protection of big oil? U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia (and by implication all its other important oil sources and conduits) has been one of the few fixed points of global politics since 1945. So does this mean that conflict between Western forces and terrorists is inevitable, or is there another way forward?
Part 4: Kicking the Oil Habit
Tom Mangold looks at the alternatives that might help the world break its addiction to oil. The most pressing need is to find an alternative that will still drive motor cars and sustain the mobility of hundreds and thousands of people across the world. Can this be achieved or are we already too late? In this final programme Tom Mangold looks at the alternatives that might help the world break its addiction to the energy methadone – Oil. The most pressing need is to find an alternative that will still drive motor cars and sustain the mobility of hundreds and thousands of people across the world.In Sweden Tom Mangold visits the country’s largest Ethanol factory, Agroetanol in Norkoping and asks Director, Kenneth Werling, whether this green gold is replacing oil’s black gold. He sees a bio-gas plant where garbage is being turned into oil, and speaks to Stefan Edman – biologist, author, former political adviser to the Prime Minister and now Secretary General to the countries Commission on Oil Independence, which aims to cut Sweden’s dependency on oil dramatically by 2020. And Volvo demonstrates how it is pioneering alternative fuels in the heavy truck industry. At London’s British International Motor Show’s, staging of what is newest and best in the car industry, Tom is introduced to the first flexi-fuel car on the market. He sets this against what he has already found out about huge steps forward in battery technology, which might even make the era of the electric car closer than we think. The programme asks whether emerging countries like China and India could leap-frog the oil age, and build infrastructures to support economies based on a new energy supply. Meanwhile, Will Hutton provides a word of warning to Britain which appears to be light years behind in its quest for an alternative strategy. He says the 21st century struggle for oil reserves could match the 19th century fight for colonies, unless Britain makes hard decisions now, before it is too late. Throughout, Tom speculates on whether the world can wean itself off the oil habit, whoever is right about peak oil, changing geo-politics or supply vulnerabilities. And asks what new technologies are just around the corner, which will revolutionise how we move around and the way in which the very fabric of society and civilisation is structured.
Produced by Adam Fowler & Ladbroke Productions (Radio) Ltd for BBC Radio 4
N.B. Some audio has been edited from the original broadcast version due to copyright restrictions